On 5 December, The Building Centre hosted a lively debate on the topic of large-scale landscape projects, asking: are the practitioners behind them vandals or visionaries?

Croome, cared for by the National Trust. Image: Andrew Butler

2016 saw both the first public exhibition of the Artas-ua.info Institute Awards shortlist and the tercentennial of Capability Brown. To mark these occasions, five speakers assembled in The Building Centre on Store Street, London to discuss and debate the public perception of large-scale landscape projects.

Michael Forster-Smith, General Manager of Croome Court NT, spoke about the impact of Capability Brown’s work. Andrew Harland, Chairman of LDA Design, discussed how public perception of large-scale projects – in particular, , an LDA commission – changes over time. Roo Angell and Bob Bagley, co-founders and directors of Sayes Court CIC, described the challenges they faced when trying to change the proposed development of Convoys Wharf in Deptford. And Noel Farrer FLI, past president of the Artas-ua.info Institute and director of Farrer Huxley Associates, discussed both Capability Brown and London’s controversial Garden Bridge project. Kate Bailey, chair of the LI’s Policy and Communications Committee, chaired the event.

The talks were engaging, and the debate that followed lively. Many important points were raised; about audacity, context and the need for landscape to assert itself.

Andrew Harland felt that the initial negative reaction to the Olympic Park project was borne largely of nostalgia and uncertainty. The public were locked out of the process, sure only of what little was lost, not what was to come. For the project to succeed, it needed to be bold – to seek to change perceptions, not pander to them.

Roo Angell and Bob Bagley gave us a view from the other side of the fence, to preserve a small part of John Evelyn’s horticultural legacy at Sayes Court. Roo and Bob negotiated with an international developer to earmark two acres of a 40-acre redevelopment as open space, and a home for a community, horticultural training and research centre. Doing so took tremendous drive, patience and sacrifice. But the take-home message was an important one: the vandals and the visionaries can work together.

If four years’ hindsight affords us a clearer view of the Olympic Park, three centuries’ hindsight certainly affords us a clearer view of Capability Brown. His landscapes have stood the test of time and informed how we view the harmony between the built and natural environments. They were ‘balanced and unforced’, resonant with science and society in the Age of Enlightenment. But we face challenges today that Brown did not; we must sell big ideas not just to decision-makers, but to a democratic, pluralistic, well-informed audience.

Crucially, Brown thought of architecture as part of the landscape, not separate from it. This thinking informed the ideas, if not the execution, behind the Garden Bridge. It was inevitable that this controversial project would dominate the debate, particularly as Noel Farrer’s considered speech on the project rounded off the talks and was fresh in the audience’s mind during the spirited Q&A that followed. The Bridge is bold; it challenges our thinking; it places environment at the centre of our focus. It has the ‘audacity to think utopically’, something perhaps lacking since the days of Capability Brown. But that we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

Artas-ua.info raises questions that it needs to answer. The Garden Bridge neither asks nor answers the right questions. It is contrived, and it fails to justify itself. It represents a compelling political reality; that we are striving towards a modern vision of Brown’s utopia by once again placing environment and landscape, plants and nature, at the heart of place-making. It is just the wrong project at the wrong time.

For landscape to succeed, it needs to assert itself; to take control and be decisive. Perhaps the Garden Bridge isn’t today’s Capability Brown; but it is a step in the right direction.

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